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Saturday, November 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Tiny plane guides troops in battle

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

USMC SGT. ROBERT E. JONES SR.
Gen. Spyder Nyland, assistant Marines Corps commandant, prepares to pull the ignition rope on the catapult launcher of the ScanEagle during a demonstration Aug. 23 in Fallujah, Iraq.
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As Marines fight their way through the streets of Fallujah, an eye in the sky is guiding their movements.

The eye is a camera mounted on a small robotic airplane designed and built in the tiny town of Bingen, Klickitat County, on the Columbia River Gorge.

A platoon commander preparing to move his men forward can call in the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to reconnoiter the streets ahead.

It can track a suspicious vehicle moving through the urban battlefield. Or the camera can swivel as it flies, compensating for the movement, so that the image remains fixed on a doorway below.

The UAV, which typically flies at altitudes between 1,500 and 4,000 feet and can stay aloft for 15 hours, has been transmitting video back to a control station at the Marines' Camp Fallujah base, a few miles east of the city. Operators distribute the images and location data as needed to soldiers on the ground and attack aircraft in the air.

The ScanEagle, developed by a small company called the Insitu Group and adapted for the military in a joint venture with Boeing, has been deployed in Iraq for just three months.

The assault on Fallujah is its baptism of fire.

As of yesterday, 22 U.S. troops had died in the Fallujah assault.

While ScanEagle cannot dispel the deadly chaos of a street battle fought amid the rubble of a dense city, the people who developed the technology believe that it is making a difference and saving U.S. lives.

"We're pretty proud that we are able to be a big help to the Marines over there," said Steve Sliwa, chief executive officer of Insitu. "Our chests are thumping.
 
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"What's been particularly gratifying for people in the factory back here is we've had (Marine) company commanders come back and send the word that they really appreciated their ScanEagle," he said.

Boeing and Insitu have supplied two mobile deployment units to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Each can have as many as a dozen of the miniature aircraft, which cost around $100,000 apiece, Sliwa said.

Each deployment unit also includes a catapult launcher; a 50-foot-long skyhook for retrieval of the aircraft at the end of the mission; and a ground station that tracks and controls the UAV and receives and distributes the data.

The operators at the ground station control the aircraft with a mouse on a laptop computer.

"The people operating it aren't pilots," Sliwa said. "They're pretty good at video games, though."

A Boeing spokesman said feedback on ScanEagle from the Marine Corps has been extremely positive.

Because it can fly low, beneath the clouds and in high winds, the UAV is able to operate in conditions where some of the U.S. military's more expensive surveillance "platforms" — the large Predator UAV or the high-altitude Joint Stars aircraft — are restricted.

"There were many days in the last month or two when the weather was bad (in Iraq) and we were the platform of choice," said Sliwa.

The combat units using ScanEagle in Fallujah could not be reached. But an article posted on the Marine Corps Web site in August after a field demonstration at Camp Fallujah quoted two officers praising the UAV's capabilities.

"This is simply an extraordinary piece of equipment," said Gen. Spyder Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. "It's impressive."

ScanEagle is the product of years of development by a group of high-powered engineers.

Insitu's founder and chief technology officer, Tad McGeer, who grew up in Vancouver, B.C., wanted a Pacific Northwest coast location to start his new robotic aircraft engineering business.

McGeer, with aeronautical engineering degrees from Princeton and Stanford, chose Bingen, on the Columbia River Gorge, famous for its river sailboarding and with easy access to the airport in Portland.

"For a long time they were pretty obscure," said Brian Prigel, mayor of Bingen. "They had been working out of the garage of the owners."

The original idea, which in 1994 gave the company its odd name, was to create a robotic plane with long endurance that could fly far out into an ocean weather system and make meteorological measurements in situ — i.e., in place, from within the weather system, rather than remotely via satellite.

Later Insitu began developing a version of its robotic craft, called Seascan, that could take off from an ocean trawler and hunt for shoals of fish.

That project is approaching fruition. On Thursday, a Seascan robot flew a five-hour flight test in restricted airspace off the coast of Whidbey Island, launched from a 58-foot boat the company keeps docked in Everett.

But military applications have become the big focus.

"It wasn't the original business plan," Sliwa said, "But 9/11 changed all that."

In February 2002, Insitu teamed up with Boeing to connect with the U.S. military and develop the prototype that became ScanEagle.

Boeing provides both defense-establishment connections and the technical expertise — drawn from its Phantom Works R&D unit and its Integrated Defense Systems division — required to integrate ScanEagle's intelligence into military networks.

ScanEagle's flight tests are conducted at Boeing's Boardman test range in Eastern Oregon.

Insitu has 48 employees, most of them arriving in Bingen with high-powered technical degrees from top universities.

Like its giant partner Boeing, Insitu outsources as much of the manufacturing as it can, about half of it within a 50-mile radius. Innovative Composites Engineering, the vendor that supplies the high-tech wings for ScanEagle, is right next door in the Bingen business park.

Such jobs are welcomed in a part of the state where decline in the lumber and agricultural industries has brought relatively high unemployment. Insitu's Sliwa likes to tease Boeing people that Bingen, population about 700, may have the highest per capita concentration of aerospace engineering talent of any community in the country.

That expertise may be projected on your TV news.

Some of the video footage provided by the Marines and broadcast on CNN in the first days of the action in Fallujah was shot by the ScanEagle.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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